New Maritime Security Challenges in the Indian Ocean: Shared Concerns and Opportunities from Bangladesh Perspective

By Professor Shahab Enam Khan, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, and Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute.[1]

3 May 2021 

“Within a few generations, the world’s oceans will no longer be coloured blue. Instead, they will have been claimed by nation states and will be identified on maps according to the shades of the countries that own them”. – Alexis Dudden, Financial Times

Setting the Context:

The South Asian security discourse often overlooked the evolving role of the Indian Ocean in setting the future courses of international relations, trade, and security. This is a water mass bounded on the west by East Africa, on the north by the Indian subcontinent, on the east by Indochina and Australia, and on the south by the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica. The Indian Ocean is the world’s third-largest ocean and constitutes about 20 per cent of the water on the Earth’s surface. The political and security dynamics in four regions – the Persian Gulf, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Africa are linked with the politics of the Indian Ocean and craft interdependent economies and interactive strategic processes within regional systems. Hence, the ocean has intrinsic impacts on domestic politics, foreign policy behavior, and significant outside powers’ role in Asian countries.

The South Asian countries [in that matter the Indian Ocean countries too], for their energy supply, depends on the maritime supply routes in the Indian Ocean. This is a region where the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Chinese-led Belt Road Initiative, and the Maritime Silk Route converges and diverges, paving ways for these two countries to exercise absolute strategic advantages over one another. The geopolitics of the energy supply route dominates the energy security complex across the regions. As Kaplan (2014) mentioned: “Geopolitics is the battle for space and power played out in a geographical setting. Just as there are military geopolitics, diplomatic geopolitics and economic geopolitics, there is also energy geopolitics. For natural resources and the trade routes that bring those resources to consumers is central to the study of geography” (Kaplan, 2014). The control over the energy supply routes and the transit states are now at the core of the IPS and BRI agenda. Bangladesh and India’s dependency on the U.S., Europe, China, central, and the Middle East for energy and mercantile supply and routes will continue to be static for the foreseeable future. Hence, a peaceful and stable Indian Ocean is of paramount importance for both countries for their economic futures. However, the ocean comes with strategic impetus too.

Although the economic and political views toward the Indian Ocean vary, its critical strategic importance linking the global power game has begun over the past two decades. Moreover, it is growing at an astronomical pace. Transiting from “sea amnesia” to “sea cognizance” among the political thinkers is gaining prominence. While the countries are increasingly becoming aware of the strategic equations, the Indian Ocean has become a theatre of nontraditional security challenges. This, too, is linked with the moral, ethical, and legal governance of the region that would require regional solutions and commitments beyond strategic thinking. The role of non-state actors and environmental threats pose high stake threats to the IOR countries, and no single country can act as a net security provider for the IORA region. These two variables can potentially stifle the movement of more than half of the world’s container traffic and one-third of all maritime traffic from between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

To understand the scale of importance, one can look into China’s “Malacca Dilemma,” which exposes China’s vulnerability to access to the greater Indo-Pacific. Chinese access to Indo-Pacific is mainly limited to one main pass. Its ships have to travel over the South China Sea to reach that pass, which is a mess of overlapping territorial claims from countries in the region (Mullen & Poplin, 2015). Beijing lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea by virtue of what is known as the nine-dash line (Pilling, 2014).

Interestingly, the Indian Ocean is governed through a number of ratifications of maritime agreements. Besides, regional organizations like BIMSTEC and ASEAN are placing increasing policy attention on maritime issues, and where the need exists, ad hoc cooperative structures are emerging, such as the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the  Philippines to combat maritime security threats in the Sulu-Celebes seas (Benson, 2020). In South Asia, Bangladesh resolved its maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar through ITLOS and UNCLOS (Rosen & Jackson, 2017). The maritime territorial disputes are a much larger concern in Southeast Asia, where a plethora of disputes in the South China Sea and between states in archipelagic Southeast Asia can undermine the region’s progress toward cooperation on maritime issues (Benson, 2020).

Meanwhile, the IORA countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have joined the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership  which accounts for about 30% of the world’s population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($26.2 trillion) as of 2020, making it the biggest trade bloc in history (Nikkei Asia, 2020). The RCEP denotes a greate economic collaboration among ASEAN and its five major trading partners including China. On the other hand, intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for approximately 5 percent of South Asia’s total trade whereas intraregional trade accounts for 25 per cent in the ASEAN region. The World Bank noted, “trade among South Asian countries currently totals just $23 billion — far below an estimated value of at least $67 billion” (World Bank, 2021). This poor intraregional trade denotes lack of cooperation among the geographically natural markets and exposes historical mistrusts and threat perceptions. As a result, IOR countries offer mixed responses to cooperation and approaches to collective security based on economic and security priorities.

Henceforth, the purpose of this article is to review the geopolitical and geoeconomic interfaces of the Indian Ocean through the prisms of traditional and nontraditional threats. Perhaps, this article argues that over securitization of the Indian Ocean can stifle the process of developing a common agenda to govern the ocean, and the management of the Indian Ocean has to be seen through the prisms of “sea welfare” and not “sea contro”. The challenges to this ocean are evolving with the pace of human growth, the market economy, and climate change leading to volatilities. Paradoxically, the ocean is also a source of combined economic and strategic interdependence that the political actors often overlook.

The Complex Interplay between Geostrategy and Geoeconomics:

The Indian ocean comes with a mix of geostrategic interests and geoeconomic realities. In terms of sea-politics, BRI project such as the Gwadar Port, warm water and deep seaport of Pakistan, is situated at the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz 2/3 world oil reserves. The port holds significant strategic and economic importance for both China and Pakistan as it is located at a cross-junction of international sea shipping and oil trade routes. It means that the port is linked with the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) originating from the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Hence, the Gwadar will control the oil sea routes and trade links among regions such as South Asia, Africa, Central Asia, Gulf, and Middle East (Hellenic Shipping Line, 2019). It will provide strategic leverage to Pakistan vis-à-vis India, as the port is far from Indian reach as compared to the other two Pakistani ports. In case of tensions over the Strait of Malacca, Gwadar would provide an alternate sea route. Gwadar can act as an alternative route to the Indian Ocean or South China Sea routes. On the other hand, the India-Iran infrastructure collaboration has given greater strategic importance to Chahbahar as a parallel alternative to the Gwadar port. Chahbahar comes as a part of countering the so-called “Strings of Pearl strategy” that India views as a Chinese strategic objective to encircle India.

Perhaps, along with the politics of infrastructure, market stability in these countries depend on the Indian Ocean. Most of the oil and LNG projects for the IORA countries are dependent on the maritime route, which causes new geopolitical problems directly link with energy transport, logistics, and storage. Hence political and foreign policy risks are exacerbated by the chokepoints for energy transit routes linking the Indian Ocean. According to OPEC estimates, “79.4% of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in OPEC member countries with the bulk of OPEC oil reserves in the Middle East amounting to 64.5% of the OPEC total” (OPEC, 2019). Nearly 2/3rd of the world’s oil trade is made through maritime routes, and there are four global chokepoints for the oil trade.

Approximately 20.7 million barrels per day, more than 60% of world maritime oil trade, of oil traffic takes place in the Strait of Hormuz (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). This is a twenty-one miles wide passage between Oman and Iran, connecting the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea, and predominantly used for oil and LNG exports from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). Both Bangladesh and India are politically linked with these countries for human resources export, contributing to their economies through remittances and energy trade. Any geopolitical and geostrategic volatility in these countries has a direct implication on Bangladesh and India. The relation between Iran and the US-allied Gulf countries threatened to disrupt energy traffic through this Straight, leading to the reinforced geostrategic presence of the US and China in the Hormuz region.

The Strait of Malacca is the shortest shipping route between the Far East and the Indian Ocean, and it is considered as the second most crucial oil trading choke point, located between Indonesia and Malaysia, through which 30% of global maritime crude oil trade, equivalent to 15 million barrels per day, is done (US Energy Information Administration, 2018). This Strait is of China’s vital interest since 90% of crude oil volumes flowing through the South China Sea are transited through the Strait of Malacca. This Strait is located between Africa and the Persian Gulf to connect the Asian markets with the Middle Eastern and African oil producers. Along with access to the Strait of Malacca, the Suez Canal is a critical chokepoint for the South Asian countries. Though the Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez defines the border between Africa and Asia.

The Canal offers a more direct maritime route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean and Red seas, thus avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans and reducing the journey distance from the Arabian Sea to London, for example, by approximately 8,900 kilometers (5,500 mi) (World Shipping Council, 2020). The Suez Canal, combined with the SUMED Pipeline, is a strategic trade route that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for oil, petroleum products, and LNG shipments do Europe and North America. Through the Canal, the northbound petroleum traffic connects the European and the northern American markets with the Persian Gulf. It accounts for approximately 9% of total maritime energy transport. SUMED accounted for approximately 8% of the global LNG trade (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). The southbound crude oil shipments through the Canal connect Singapore, China and India with the Middle Eastern and African oil producers. Russia accounted for the largest share of (24%) of the southbound petroleum traffic. The utility of the Canal has increased with the increases in Libyan crude oil production and exports and Qatar’s LNG production (US Energy Information Administration, 2019).

Another chokepoint for the South Asian countries is the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. This Strait is increasingly becoming a geostrategic chokepoint for the US and China. It is a narrow passage located between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, precisely between Djibouti and Yemen. China’s first overseas military base, costing US$ 590 million, was set up in Djibouti, which significantly demonstrates The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) power projection capabilities in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The ongoing civil war in Yemen and infighting between the Saudi backed government forces and an ostensibly allied southern separatist movement, supported by UAE-backed Southern Transition Council, has put tension over the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb. The Yemen tension has escalated oil prices in 2015 and has become an influential factor in determining energy prices.

Moreover, the zero-sum game between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Yemen crisis has become a significant power play in which the US and China are active participants. An estimated 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil, condensate, and unrefined petroleum products start straight through this trade toward Europe, The US, and Asia (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). This Strait accounts for 9% of total maritime petroleum trade in 2017, of which 3.6 million BPD are northbound toward Europe, and 2.6 million BPD is southbound toward the Asian markets such as Singapore, China, and India (US Energy Information Administration, 2019).

The Emerging Challenges in the Indian Ocean:

The geostrategic and geoeconomics interface are linked not only with traditional maritime conflicts between nation-states but also are linked with nontraditional threats, such as environmental threats and threats by non-state actors (maritime terrorism and piracy). After the delimitation of the maritime boundaries, Bangladesh realized the need for safe and secured territorial water. The BIMSTEC, IORA, ASEAN now focuses on maritime piracy in the modern era, learning from the lessons from Somalia’s coast. Although piracy in the India-Bangladesh waters, the Indo-Pacific is increasingly becoming a hotspot for maritime crime. If we take the example of the Bay of Bengal, criminal nexus is found to be active in extortion, armed robbery, and kidnappings in the sea. The Straits of Malacca witnesses robbery, the Sulu Sea is confronted with a string of piracy linked with extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf (Benson, 2020).

Apart from maritime piracy and terrorism, illicit maritime trades and trafficking are on the rise too. In particular, Bangladesh suffers from a multitude of crimes in its waters, including acts of piracy and drug trafficking on top of the list (in that order) in the trajectory of transnational maritime crimes for Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal, a geopolitical and geoeconomic pivot for the BIMSTEC countries, connects Bangladesh with South and Southeast Asia. This is perhaps a critical zone for the sub-regional South-Southeast Asia’s forgotten “Quad,” popularly known as BCIM – Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar Economic Corridor. At present, population growth, climate change, overexploitation of fisheries, degradation of critical habitats, pollution, and deteriorating water quality are reshaping the Bay.

The pace and breadth of these challenges require regional cooperation that encourages the countries around the Bay to rise above their political fault-lines to work together. The Maldives, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are currently working together under the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project designed to improve the lives of the coastal populations through improved regional management of the Bay of Bengal environment and its fisheries (Kabir & Ahmad, 2015). Located at the northeastern tip of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal is bounded by the coastlines of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It offers a US$3.71 Trillion of the combined economy (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 2019).

Despite the agreements and international or regional arrangements, the Bay remains a route for piracy, narcotics, human trafficking, arms smuggling, and illegal fishing. Preventing piracy, smuggling of illegal drugs, especially methamphetamine pills, illegal human trafficking, illegal trespassing, and cross-border terrorism has become critical security issues not only for the countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal but also for the multilateral and regional institutions such as the UN, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and Association for South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). Perhaps, the security-related issues have become focal concerns for the emerging initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which seeks to build cooperative security and political frameworks to address the common challenges stemming from the Indian Ocean.

The Bay of Bengal, sandwiched between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescnet – hotbeds for narcotics, human, and small arms narcotice – continues to see a rise in narco-economy and human trafficking. In 2019, the Malaysian Police intercepted boats laden with meth that left the Malaysian city of Penang. Syndicates also use “motherships” that pick up the drugs in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal and distribute them as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. Meth from Myanmar has also been found smuggled in shipping containers in the Philippines and Malaysia. According to the report published by the Police, chemists are brought in from Taiwan and China to run the meth labs in Myanmar, while the precursors and lab equipment mostly comes from China (Allard, 2019).

In Bangladesh and Myanmar’s case, the bulk of drug trafficking happens through the Bay of Bengal and the land point of transits between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The maritime drugs trafficking remained active throughout 2019 and 2020, in particular along the Bay of Bengal linking the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca Straits to reach crystalline methamphetamine markets in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia as well as onward trafficking to the Pacific islands, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand (UNODC, 2020).

The geographic proximity of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives have enabled human and geographical networks for drug trafficking. Myanmar and Thailand, which are major opium-producing regions of the world, have put all countries, including Bangladesh and the island nations such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in a precarious position as far as the drug menace is concerned. Bangladesh’s location is more vulnerable as it is situated between the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan) and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar-Thailand). The drug trafficking modus operandi constantly changes with fluid and clandestine networks spanning from Afghanistan to the Maldives to the Indian Northeast to Thailand to the Strait of Malacca. The drug and human traffickers can now use information and communication technologies to navigate their transport vehicles clandestinely.

While the use of technology by the non-state actors is nothing new, the new technologies will have consequences leading to serious maritime incidents, leading to loss of life, environmental pollution, and cargo loss, directly affecting society and the economy. Safety, security, and pollution prevention are of the utmost importance for maritime transport. Series of criminal incidents at sea shows no sign of abating, despite significant investments and the application of new technologies. Human factors and training are essential to reduce incidents at sea and manage the applications of new technologies, particularly the interaction between man and machine (European Council for maritime Applied R&D, 2020).

Another critical challenge is determining future risk levels and developing standard procedures to relate risk levels to maritime movements. Terrorist threats show no signs of decreasing, and both ships and ports may continue to face the threat of terrorist acts. This is further supplemented by severe concerns about cyber-security that can undermine the security of SLOCs. In the future, the transnational criminal groups would be able to use autonomous ships, underwater vehicles, shore-based control, and fully autonomous remote operations for criminal activities. In addition to the criminal-terrorism dimension, the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IIU) Fishing and Hidden Harvest remains a critical problem. The unregulated movement of trawlers and boats should be monitored. This would require regional and extra-regional collaborations.

In 2015, Sri Lankan authorities claimed to have spotted 40,544 Indian trawlers in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters (Lobo & Ghosh, 2017). Twenty trawlers were seized, and 450 fishermen were arrested. At least 100 deaths have been reported. Conversely, many Sri Lankan tuna fishermen have also been arrested in India. On the other side of the subcontinent, large numbers of Indian fishermen are frequently arrested in Pakistan: 220 were released in December 2016 as a goodwill gesture (Lobo & Ghosh, 2017). In Myanmar, until a ban was enacted in 2014, the catch collected by foreign fishing boats was 100 times greater than that of local fishermen (Lobo & Ghosh, 2017). In the troubled Arakan region, where 43% of the population is dependent on fisheries, catches have declined so steeply that many families are mired in debt (Aung, 2017). The Mergui archipelago on the Thai-Myanmar border is a secluded part of the Bay, once rich with the underwater marine ecosystem, that has become ravaged by dynamite-fishing and climate-change-induced bleaching (Amrith, 2015).

However,  IUU fishing harms fisheries’ health by contributing to the overexploitation of fish stocks. Despite the general increasing trend in fish production, IUU fishing could further escalate overfishing. In a 2015 assessment, BOBLME showed that the total value of illegal fishing catches was between $3.35 billion and $10.40 billion annually. Unported fishing could be valued between $2.7 billion and $1.35 billion annually (Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem Project, 2019). Indeed, illegal fishing without reporting violates Article145 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The use of plastic further exacerbates the depletion of fishing and ecosystems. This unregulated fishing can be traced back since the 1960s. In the 1960s, western aid agencies encouraged the growth of trawling in India, so that fishermen could profit from the demand for prawns in foreign markets. This led to a “pink gold rush”, in which prawns were trawled with fine mesh nets that were dragged along the seafloor. But along with hauls of “pink gold,” these nets also scooped up whole seafloor ecosystems as well as vulnerable species like turtles, dolphins, sea snakes, rays and sharks (Lobo & Ghosh, Bay of Bengal: Depleted Fish Stocks and Huge Dead Zone Signal Tipping Point, 2017). These were once called bycatch, and were largely discarded. Today the collateral damage of the trawling industry is processed and sold to the fast-growing poultry and aquaculture industries of the region. In effect, the processes that sustain the Bay of Bengal’s fisheries are being destroyed in order to produce dirt-cheap chicken feed and fish feed.

Apart from fishing problems, the Indian ocean has become another hotspot for plastic. A recent report published by the Scientific Report (2019) identified that 414 million plastic waste items, weighing 238 tonnes, are polluting Cocos Keeling Islands, a remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean (Lavers, Dicks, Dicks, & Finger, 2019). The report further identified that the group of islands, touted as Australia’s last unspoiled paradise, is located 2,100 kilometers off the northwest coast of the continent and has tourism as a primary source of income. The large plastic buildup included about 25 percent single-use or disposable plastics — packaging, drink bottles, straws, plastic cutlery, bags, toothbrushes — and shoes (Lavers, Dicks, Dicks, & Finger, 2019). This colossal amount of plastic waste is a symbolic representation of plastic circulation across the Indian ocean.

If we take the case of the Indian sub-continent, the situation could be seen as more problematic. This region is characterized by high population density (almost a fifth of the world’s total population), low-income development indicators, and high dependence upon natural resources for livelihood. Recent studies indicate that eight of them come from Asia, among the top ten most polluted rivers globally. Two of them are in the South Asia subregion (i.e., sixth – the Ganges, and third – Indus) (The Thaiger, 2019). The top ten plastic polluted rivers are accountable for 88% of the total plastic load in the oceans (Kapinga & Chung, 2020). Rivers Indus, Meghna, Brahmaputra, and the Ganges in South Asia region account for roughly 22% of the plastic weight of the top ten plastic polluting rivers, which translates into approximately 19% of the global marine plastic pollution (Kapinga & Chung, 2020).

A scientific study conducted by Mheen, Sebille & Pattiaratchi (2020) identified that Large amounts of plastic waste enter the ocean every year, potentially harming marine species and ecosystems. However, the awareness and research on plastic debris (“plastics”) is relatively new in the Indian Ocean. This is a significant gap in governing the marine ecosystems in the Indian ocean. The Indian Ocean’s atmospheric and oceanic dynamics are unique, so plastic deposition and pollution in the Indian Ocean differ from those in the other oceans (Mheen, Sebille, & Pattiaratchi, 2020). Therefore, plastic will be another critical area leading to the creation of more “dead zones.” The burden-sharing can potentially cause tensions among states and can be a source of environmental crisis. It is just a matter of time. That means we need to have effective and realtime information exchange related to pollution data, build infrastructure for plastic recycling, and enforce regional norms for plastic control. We should remember that AI is increasingly becoming a tool for policy making in the developed world. Hence, the IOR countries need to find AI driven solutions to understand the biogeochemical drivers of variability of the air-to-sea CO2 exchange, spanning from regional to global spatial scales, and from monthly to inter-annual time scales (Schuster, 2019).

While plastic is emerging as a source of tension, the seabed exploration for mineral deposits is a potential source of competition among the states. Growing demand for batteries to power electric cars and store wind and solar energy has driven up the cost of many rare-earth metals and bolstered the business case for seabed mining (Heffernan, 2019). the International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 15 years contract for 21 contractors to exploit the resources in the Clarion-Clipperton zone to India to Mid Atlantic to South Atlantic and Pacific. As a result, new technologies will become a significant factor in resource exploitation and maritime economic architecture. Environmental scientists and conservationists have raised their eyebrows since they are worried about the industry’s capabilities and technological limitations to avoid serious environmental harm. The Nature magazine identified that there is scarce data that suggest that deep-sea mining will have devastating, and potentially irreversible, impacts on marine life (Heffernan, 2019).

Moreover, both the Northern Hemisphere Indian Ocean (NIO) and the Southern Hemisphere Indian Ocean (SIO) are vulnerable to other challenges such as climate change and natural disasters. Countries in the Bay of Bengal are particularly vulnerable to climate shocks, and the region’s average vulnerability is rated well above the global average (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, 2020). The ND-GAIN Country Index 2020 identified that Thailand was considered the least vulnerable in the region (just above the global average) due to its relatively strong public health, water systems, and infrastructure, and Myanmar was considered the most vulnerable due to projected impacts on its food security and public health (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, 2020). Extreme weather events such as Cyclone causes colossal economic damage and are becoming increasingly frequent.

The changing weather patterns can also lead to drought, threatening agriculture and the region’s booming cities, sea-level rise and salinization threatens 40 percent of productive land in southern Bangladesh alone and endangers agriculture and access to drinking water across the region. That means sea level rise, increased storm surges, and shifting river flows threaten coastal and low-lying megacities such as Kolkata, Dhaka, and Yangon, with an increased risk of massive economic damage and large-scale displacement. Climate change and the effect of sea-level rise threaten coastal welfare, agricultural practices, and regional stability in terms of climate-induced migration and displacement. That further means competition over limited resources and exploitation of marine resources can potentially lead to traditional threats. The regional countries would require cooperating in building climate adaptation and resilience efforts using a cooperative framework that should include innovation, engineering, energy and agricultural technologies, climatology, urban development, and a host of other areas.

Therefore, climate change vulnerabilities, asymmetry in water governance in the region, and lack of technological solutions has accelerated the possibility of more climate-induced migration in the region. A study by the Wilson Center noted, “Many observers, when thinking about climate vulnerability in South Asia, reflexively fixate on Bangladesh—a low-lying, lower riparian nation often convulsed by destructive floods. In reality, the entire region is dangerously vulnerable” (Kugelman, 2020). Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives face risk of climate induced risk due to rising salinity, sea level rise, and poor river management. The landlocked Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal are no exception and encounter rising temperatures, drought, and glacial melt. As such, the entire region are facing the risk of prolonged migration which requires collective response and a reformed attitude toward the reality emerging from non-cooperation in the area of migration. 


The complex interplay among the politics of sea, geopolitics, and geoeconomics, and the emerging challenges, in a nutshell, shows the rise of a new great game in the Indian Ocean. Given the Bay of Bengal as the geostrategic pivot in the Indian Ocean region, the new game begins with Bangladesh as the centerpiece. The US Deputy Secretary of State Mr. Stephen Biegun, during his visit to Dhaka in October 2020, mentioned that “Bangladesh will be a centerpiece of our work in the region” (US Embassy in Dhaka, 2020). Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of Chinese assistance in the region with a focus on the infrastructure sector. Bangladesh is a signatory to BRI, and China sees new port and rail links from China to Bangladesh can serve as a pressure valve for the Malacca Strait. The Beijing-backed deep-sea port at Sonadia was shelved when India, Japan, and the United States voiced concerns (Mullen & Poplin, 2015). Bangladesh is India’s largest trade partner in South Asia. The country has channelized US$800 million to Bangladesh as a part of its Act East policy. Both Indian and China have invested heavily in Bangladesh’s next-door neighbor Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Almost a million Rohingya refugees from the Rakhine state puts Bangladesh at odds with all these three countries despite outstanding trade and people-to-people contacts. Hence, Bangladesh’s geostrategic and geopolitical approach to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean as a whole need to be seen through a defensive yet collaborative spectrum.

The peaceful resolution of maritime boundaries among Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar shows that greater cooperation leading to new governance regimes is possible. The Bangladesh Coast Guard and the Indian Coast Gueard regularly meet through regional and zonal commander-level meetings. The 4th regional and zonal commander-level meeting between the Bangladesh Coast Guard and Indian Coast Guard was held on October 20, 2020 (New Age, 2020). Regional cooperation, mutual relations, training exchange, and other issues were discussed during the meeting in light of the “MoU on Establishment of Collaborative Relationship to Combat Transnational Activities at Sea and Develop Regional Cooperation between the Indian Coast Guard and Bangladesh Coast Guard” signed between the two neighboring Coast Guards (Ministry of External Affairs, India, 2015).

Currently, India, China, and Japan are providing Bangladesh with financial and technical resources, and private and public sector investments, and defense equipment and resources in the Bay area of Bangladesh, viz in Bangladesh’s part of Bengal, to harness the benefits from the large untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals, fisheries, coastal shipping, deep seaports, and other maritime infrastructures. Hence, to accelerate industrial agglomeration along the Dhaka-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazaar belt area and beyond, encompassing developing economic infrastructure, improving the investment environment, and fostering connectivity, the BoB has increasingly become a strategic pivot for Bangladesh and the investor states (Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2014). Moreover, the Bay of Bengal is also linked with the land-locked Northeast Indian states, which enjoys transit through Bangladesh territory to link themselves with international trade and market. Bangladesh, being the lower riparian country, is now looking forward to technological solutions to manage its internal water systems to reduce its reliance over other countries for water. This would require technical and financial supports to ensure sustainable water management and governance/

Moreover, the geostrategic competition over the Sri Lankan and the Maldivian waters brought high-level visits to Colombo in 2020. Quite remarkably, three high ranking officials from Moscow, Beijing, and Washington (Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells) visited Colombo on January 13, 2020 – to establish initial outreach to the new Rajapaksa dispensation in Sri Lanka (Khan, 2021). The timing and sequence broadly underscored each of their growing focus on Colombo. In particular, Washington DC, which faces a standoff with Colombo on the issues concluding the US$ 480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), making it by far the single largest non-IFI grant in Sri Lankan history (Khan, 2021).

In addition, China, within its overarching BRI  has built Hambantota Port in southern Sri Lanka, which will be South Asia’s largest port when the third phase of construction is completed this year. China also started building a $1.4 billion port project near Colombo. The agreement will last for 99 years and gives Beijing jurisdiction over 50 acres of land. Indeed, the Colombo Port City Project, as its name suggests, will be a city under Chinese lease, replete with apartment buildings, shopping malls, and golf courses. In times of conflict, China would likely be able to make military use of the facilities (Mullen & Poplin, 2015). Along with BRI, the US-led IPS has emerged as a strategic choice when the narrative of “strategic autonomy” is gaining political ground among the IORA countries.

While the great game will continue to unfold, in the region’s interest the South Asian or perhaps the IORA states would require thinking beyond national or political strategic prisms. IORA-level cooperation in disaster relief, information sharing on environment and ecosystems and pollutions, maritime terrorism and crimes, maritime induced migration, and IUU fishing are required. Regional norms and standards-settings for the governance of the Indian Ocean has become another critical point to reap the positive benefits from the Indian Ocean. Along with the capacity building of the navies and maritime law enforcement agencies to patrol their waters, identify threats, and respond to incidents, the countries should come together to build a cooperative maritime security framework. Such a framework should be designed to be inclusive; hence, bypassing China or the US would certainly be a non-starter – be it through Strings of Pearl or Indo-Pacific strategy (Mahbubani, 1997).

As the region navigates its way through the twenty-first century, policymakers must recognize the realities and constraints in the Asia-Pacific – the expanding trade, investment, artificial intelligence, unmanned technologies, and movement of goods and natural persons. Interdependence will continue to increase steadily. Therefore, the Indian Ocean should be seen, governed, and managed through a cooperative approach. IORA and BIMSTEC and inter-regional cooperation through SAARC-ASEAN and BIMSTEC-ASEAN would be needed to effectively address the gaps and create a framework for collective maritime security through increased maritime domain awareness, coordinated patrols, and burden-sharing. Summit level talks should be held by the IOR countries on a regular basis, open and candid science-based discussions among the engineers and maritime experts should be facilitated by the governments, scientific communities, and civil society, progress and innovations in the maritime sector should be shared among the countries since all the countries are not at par in terms of technological advancement and quality, and common governance norms and standards in the areas of fishing, pollution, and illegal movements should receive the highest priority for the apex leaders.

Therefore, new challenges require new solutions, new institutions, and indeed new norms with genuine commitment. Overemphasizing the geopolitical indicators will only drive the littoral nations away from resolving the decisive threat of all times to the planet and to the existence of humankind – evolving paradigm shifts in climate change and its implications to IOR. The countries should focus on setting up quality maritime infrastructure, with or without support of extra-regional actors, without further delay. The choice of investment should be provided by the multilateral institutions – be it the Bretton Woods institution, or BRI institutions, or perhaps any future arrangement under IPS, and it should be done bypassing militarization or political objectives. The geopolitical pressure can well be reduced by respecting sovereign jurisdictions and strategic autonomies that the states aspire to protect. This also would require trust among the states to cooperate and share interoperable information required for greater cooperation. Of course, the countries will need to move from pre-Covidian attitude toward security in which national interest played the key role to post-Covidian norms in which collective security will dictate the terms of geopolitics and geostrategy. Therefore, the countries should develop a shared charter, led by the island and littoral states, for a free and open Indian Ocean to ensure sustainable oceanic ecosystems that would benefit the generations to come.


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[1] Professor Shahab Enam Khan, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh, and Research Director, Bangladesh Enterprise Institute. Professor Khan can be reached via emails: shahab.e.khan@gmail.com ; sekhan@juniv.edu

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

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